Meanwhile, Back in Baghdad…

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Iraqis inspect the carnage inflicted by a car bomb that exploded Aug. 16 in Baghdad's mainly Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, killing 16 and injuring 49.

It has been a rough few months in Iraq. Killings in June and July are higher (though nowhere near the 2006 and 2007 highs) and Sunday’s New York Times publishes the not-so-shocking revelation that the Iraqis and Iranians trade a lot of money back and forth (a day after a similar story on Iranian money in Afghanistan).

Against this backdrop, I highlight the recent release of a short memo “Renewed Violence in Iraq” that the Council on Foreign Relations commissioned me to write. The title is actually a bit deceptive. I do not maintain there is renewed violence in Iraq—but rather that the U.S. government should continue to plan against the possibility of it occurring.

I admit this seems a strange position to hold against the drumbeat of car bombings throughout Iraq that have spiked during Baghdad’s long hot summer.

However, as horrific as these attacks are, it is important to distinguish between this terrorist campaign by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its affiliates, and the sectarian conflict of five years ago. The majority of Iraq’s Sunni citizens condemn these attacks. Critically, Iraq’s Shi’a citizens seem to understand this, and the lack of retaliatory attacks against Sunni targets has been notable (though moderate Sunni leaders are also targeted by AQI.

The cycle of violence so often referenced in the dark days of 2005-2008 appears to have been broken. Further, the Iraqis have developed an incredible resiliency to these attacks. While the families and friends of course mourn their dead, society as a whole picks up and continues with business.

This resiliency is a welcome sign, as Iraq is also dealing with political dysfunction in addition to its terrorism problem. While Baghdad’s politics remain contentious, recent crises—centering around a vote of no confidence by the legislature—have been overblown in both Arab and American press accounts. These dispatches disregard the fundamental fact that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not only wildly popular with his Shi’a base, but has been able to reach out to Sunni groups as well (albeit mostly to assuage their fears of Kurdish incursion). But even accounting for exaggeration, Iraq’s politics clearly suffer from immature institutions and an underdetermined constitution.

The American electorate still wishes to put Iraq behind it, whether because of anger at the 2003 invasion, scarring from the sectarian horrors of 2006, or frustration with the withdrawal at the end of 2011 (or some combination of the above).

But as I state in the CFR memo, Iraq remains strategically important to United States interests in the region. It is a neighbor to both Syria and Iran and will have a significant role however the crises in these countries play out. Is it on the forefront of the battle of ideas between Al Qaeda and more moderate Sunni Islam.

Iraq’s very existence is a fundamental challenge to Iran’s Shi’a theocracy, as it shows another legitimate form of government for an Islamic state. It is a player in any and all Kurdish issues due to its large population of the same.

And, not least, its increasingly robust oil sector will play not only on world markets, but in the internal politics of OPEC.

Finally, for all the frustrations with Iraq, it is a parliamentary democracy, however fragile and flawed. We are deeply vested in democratic success in the region.

Despite all our frustrations, we need to keep a watchful eye on Iraq.

Douglas A. Ollivant is a Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation. A retired Army officer, his last assignment was Director for Iraq at the National Security Council, after two tours in Baghdad. He also spent a year in Afghanistan as a Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University and is on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.